Exteriority in Writing:
Bringing Levinas into Composition
The clashes of expressivists and critical pedagogues have littered the pages of composition journals for nearly twenty years (see, for example, the 1989 and 1995 CCC debates between Elbow and Bartholomae). Expressivists claim that writing is an act of self-discovery, while critical pedagogues claim that writing exposes the social construction of the self. Their distinction between self as truth and self as social product is a matter of heated pedagogical differentiation, yet neither seems to call into question the primacy of the self in their approach to writing. While writing can legitimately be a means of self-reflection, I would argue that a focus on the self should not be the primary mode of post-secondary writing instruction.
For the average first-year writing student, at eighteen or nineteen years of age, thinking about his or herself is not such a foreign activity that it requires extensive educational guidance. It is true that the writer cannot be left out of writing, but for our purposes as instructors, having writing both originate from and return to the writer is hardly a productive mode of education. From Aristotle to Burke, we have a tradition of rhetoric as communicating something to another person, persuasively, to “induc[e] cooperation” (Burke 43). Writing, when leaning on this model of communication, moves from interiority to exteriority and becomes more than simply talking to, for, and about oneself. Although most writing instructors tend to acknowledge a view of writing as communication, the dialogic implications of writing have not fully enhanced our pedagogy. To move beyond the limits of selfhood as the scope of our writing pedagogy, we can look to Emmanuel Levinas to add a sense of exteriority and ethics to our theoretical framework for writing instruction.
My criticism of self-centered composition pedagogy is, naturally, particularly applicable to the expressivist approach. The expressivist agenda, as Lucille Parkinson McCarthy describes it, is “to help students grow in their ability to understand their own experiences” (654). Beginning with Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, the expressivists encourage writing as an act of self-discovery, borrowing from the Neo-Platonist model of a quest for interior truth. As Murray describes of his own writing, “I meet myself on the page [. . .] and in the process of writing I have learned who I am” (3). This self-realization is the stated aim of the expressivist writing classroom. Elbow freely admits the self-involvement of his ideal student, first questioning, “Whether I should invite my first-year students to be self-absorbed and see themselves at the center of the discourse,” then responding, “I recently read an academic critique of a writer for being too self-absorbed, of reading his subjectivity too much into the object he was allegedly examining, of being imperial, arrogant—practicing analysis by means of autobiography. I have to admit that I want first-year students in my writing class to do that” (“Being a Writer” 79-80). It is hardly surprising that under this self-oriented model students are both Writing Without Teachers and Ignoring Audience. The movement of expressivist writers is toward interiority.
However, in response to criticisms leveled against this seemingly narcissistic model of writing, expressivists have claimed that there is a social dimension to their approach. Stephen M. Fishman, arguing against the critique that expressivism places writers in isolation, claims that “by reinserting personal experience into human interactions, Elbow . . . hopes to increase our chances for identifying with one another and, as a result, our chances for restructuring community” (649). Elbow himself complains, in his most recent article, “When I argue for private personal individual writing, people have trouble seeing me affirm the social dimension of language and writing” (“Reconsiderations” 173). In Writing Without Teachers, Elbow describes the social dimension of his writing groups: “It helps to think of it as trying to get into the head of someone who saw things this way. . . . To do this you must make, not an act of self-extrication, but an act of self-insertion, self-involvement—an act of projection” (149). While this attention to the writing of others does, as they claim, incorporate more than one isolated person, it still places the focus on the self—it simply transposes the self over the experience of the Other through “self-insertion, self-involvement,” and “projection,” appropriating the Other in the quest for further understanding of the self.
In his introduction to Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, John Wild describes Levinas’s view of this common egocentric experience of the Other: “Of course, I may simply treat him as a different version of myself, or, if I have the power, place him under my categories and use him for my purposes. But this means reducing him to what he is not. How can I coexist with him and still leave his otherness intact? According to Levinas, there is only one way, by language” (13-14). It is ethically problematic to, as Elbow’s workshop describes, turn the Other into simply “a different version of myself” in order to care about conversing with him. This approach to a “social dimension” is hardly social. Adopting a Levinasian view, language can be the site of social empathy, because when we encounter another individual, we have the opportunity and desire to respond. As Levinas states in Ethics and Infinity, “It is difficult to be silent in someone’s presence” (88). Thus, getting outside of the circularity of thinking, writing, and experiencing the self opens communication, which can be the starting point for writing.
Critical pedagogy invests itself in otherness, diversity, and social responsibility in its approach to composition, and yet it too reflexively returns these issues to the construction of the self. Margaret Himley, director of Syracuse University’s Writing and Diversity program, recently joined in a discussion with Phillip Marzluf about the trajectory of critical pedagogy and the need to further distance itself from “neo-expressivism.” She berates Marzluf’s critique of expressivist notions, stating, “His claims still start from the personal, implying a stable self in need of greater audience awareness. . . . Students start with the question, ‘Who am I?’” (450). She then claims that she is “looking for a different starting point” (450). And yet her project’s website, as she quotes it, asks students as one of their objectives to “understand your own position as a particular writer” (450). This self-positioning reflex stems from the social constructionist underpinnings of critical pedagogy, which emphasizes understanding the way in which individuals are products of their societies. This element of critical pedagogy returns the outward glance at social formations and power relations ultimately back to the self—making that outward glance, again, simply a way to define and consider how the self has been constructed.
In his book Border Crossings, Henry Giroux exemplifies the concern of critical pedagogy with questions of power, authority, and social inequality. He appeals to a sense of social responsibility, arguing, “The concept of border crossing not only critiques those borders that confine experience and limit the politics of crossing diverse geographical, social, cultural, economic, and political borders, it also calls for new ways to forge a public pedagogy capable of connecting [. . .] higher education and the pressing social demands of larger society” (6). Yet his concern with social responsibility again comes back to the construction of the self. He states, “Border pedagogy is not about engaging just the positionality of our students but about the nature of our own identities as they have emerged and are emerging within and between various circuits of power” (114). The concern with exterior society becomes a reflection of the “positionality” and “nature of our own identities,” or what that exterior society means to and about me.
The self, and even subjectivity, cannot entirely disappear from writing, but if writing both originates and ends with the self, then what has writing accomplished? Alan France defines “writing effectively” as “jumping the communicative gap between self and others” and claims that it “requires both a sense of self as traditionally understood and a sense of how, at this moment, both this self and those others have been structured by culture” (149). Yet he claims that “this can be done by making inquiry into identity formation itself” (149). Attempting to bridge the communicative gap by submerging into a “Who am I and how am I constructed?” exercise reduces writing to the writer, rather than engaging in an act of communication. While it is helpful to take the critical pedagogue’s attention to cultural influence, writing needs to move beyond that exploration to form a response.
Although critical pedagogues and expressivists define themselves against each other, their return to the self is mutual. As Nathan Crick argues, “Both sides of this conflict, which split over whether to see writing as a product of the mind or of an external discourse, rest upon a dualist assumption that the primary task of language is to provide linguistic representations of a transcendental ego” (254). While critical pedagogues focus on external discourse, they still return to internal construction. So although critical pedagogues may be “looking for a different starting point,” they still need a different ending point, because they end, ultimately, back in self- understanding. The desire of critical pedagogues (and expressivists) to responsibly respond to their social contexts requires, in my view, a movement away from this type of interiority.
The complication, of course, is that there is always some element of interiority; writing always begins situated within a particular writer, as the expressivists and critical pedagogues emphasize, although they draw different conclusions about that situatedness. But while writing may begin in interiority, it should not seek to end there. By approaching writing as a method to find the self or to discern how the self has been constructed by cultural forces, the writer and teacher never truly leave that initial interiority of selfhood. Levinas writes that “Being is exteriority,” although he makes it clear that “this formula does not only mean to denounce the illusions of the subjective, and claim that objective forms alone, in opposition to the sands in which arbitrary thought is mired and lost, merit the name of being. Such a conception would in the end destroy exteriority, since subjectivity itself would be absorbed into exteriority” (Totality 290). He goes on to describe “true exteriority” as coming face to face with the Other, recognizing your subjectivity, and moving on to respond to the call that comes from that moment of encounter. Thus, interiority becomes the starting point for a conversation that then moves to exteriority in the face of the Other.
Levinas maintains that existence is essentially solitary, but the ethical way we move beyond the “isolation of being” is “in the communication of knowledge,” which places solitary beings “beside the other, not confronted with him, not in the rectitude of the in-front-of-him” (Ethics 57). Moving beyond interiority, which is “a rumbling silence” (48), is brought about through communication with the Other. The expressivist agenda to explore and understand personal experience is encircled by that “rumbling silence” which does not break free of itself to communicate with another person. As Levinas writes, “The fact of being is what is most private; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence” (57). This lack of communication, lack of movement, in the focus on exploring personal experience and identity is, in the end, a circular interiority that education should seek to break through.
In fact, according to Levinas, education is the method of breaking through totality (totality meaning the systematic reduction of the world into our own categories, rather than the experience of the world, or otherness, as it is). He writes, “Teaching is not a species of a genus called domination, a hegemony at work within a totality, but is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality” (Totality 171). The infinite, as Levinas describes it, is the infinite responsibility we have to the Other as soon as we see his or her face. Education, then, is the impetus behind this conversation that we begin with the Other, and can, thereby, break out of the circularity of selfhood. As instructors in composition, we may find that this will be our pathway forward, away from the shallowness of the self and past the totality of social hegemony.
For a writer or teacher, what specifically does it look like to take a Levinasian approach to composition? There is a certain amount of overlap with critical pedagogy in that Levinas recognizes that we are, in part, constructed by our relation to the Other—so that makes a good starting point. First, we must view our relation to the Other, which is what brings us face to face. But for Levinas, that move is always subordinate to the next step, which is then the ethical response to that relation. After coming face to face with otherness, we must take responsibility to give something to him or her. For our purposes in composition, that something is our writing. And if our writing is to make the ethical response Levinas describes, it does not seek to supplant, overpower, redefine, or appropriate the Other in the interests of the self.
Additionally, as Levinas describes, that responsibility to the Other is infinite. As writers and teachers, we should always be looking for ways to respond, to break through totality whenever and wherever we encounter it. So we can see that our writing and teaching is a responsibility that is always before us, and is a response in the interest of another human being. Writing becomes, quite simply, a conversation where we meet the Other and respond ethically (by considering his or her interests rather than our own). If we consider what we are doing by writing and who we are doing it for, writing has more purpose than simply the grade my teacher is going to give me. And if we consider as writers that we are writing not just for the self, if writing is for the Other, then there is an immediate need for clarity and coherency.
Our English 150 curriculum at BYU begins with Greg Clark’s textbook chapter explaining the concept of writing as communication. In the classroom, we tend to nod to this idea faithfully and continue to maintain it vaguely through our discussions of rhetorical situation. The concept that writing is not just about the writer is hardly novel to writing classrooms. And yet, when our students ask why they need to clarify a point or why they should take into consideration the needs and values of an audience, generally we tell them that they need to do so in order to enhance their ethos or even, perhaps, that they need to do so in order to earn a good grade; they need to construct a credible persona in their texts, and they will be graded on how successfully they do so. Fairly easily, our pedagogy can fall back into the trap of self-definition or self-interest. We can be better instructors and our students can be better writers by enhancing our understanding of the exteriority of writing, by seeing the person on the other side of the page, and by accepting the responsibility to ethically respond and achieve genuine communication.
Put into practical terms, we need a more coherent pedagogical understanding, as well as a practice, that recognizes writing as true communication. As Levinas describes, true communication occurs “beside the other”; it is not transcribed over the Other. This means the conceiving of writing is not purely for the benefit, definition, or discovery of the self. When we are writing or teaching, we have an ethical responsibility to respond to the needs of the Other, to posit our knowledge for the Other’s benefit, rather than to return to how it constructs or enlightens ourselves. The reflexive interiority shared by expressivism and critical pedagogy is a constraint that must be broken through for exterior conversation, and it can be broken through with the addition of a Levinasian sense of ethical responsibility.
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